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What is Western Sahara and why does Morocco claim sovereignty over it?

Region has been claimed by both Morocco and Polisario Front, an independence movement that has long awaited political referendum
People take part in a demonstration in support of the Sahrawi people's rights in Malaga, Spain on 28 November 2020.
People demonstrate in support of Sahrawi people's rights in Malaga, Spain, on 28 November (AFP)

Often referred to as Africa's last colony, Western Sahara has come to the forefront of world news multiple times in the past few months, most recently with the announcement by the Trump administration that the United States will recognise Morocco's sovereignty over it. 

The announcement came as part of a US-brokered normalisation deal between Morocco and Israel. 

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Almost 80 percent of the territory has been administered by Morocco for about three decades, and as more time passes, the less hope there is for a UN referendum the Sahrawi people have been waiting for.

Last month, the Polisario Front independence movement declared the 1991 ceasefire over after Moroccan forces and Polisario fighters clashed over a protest blocking a highway into Mauritania.

The territory has been the centre of clashes between independence fighters and Moroccan forces for decades, and despite being handed a small parcel of the territory, they have continued to fight for self-determination.

What is Western Sahara?

Western Sahara is often described as Africa's last major colony.

It is a former Spanish colony on the Atlantic coast of Africa between Morocco and Mauritania.

Spain withdrew from the territory in 1975, the final year of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco's life, handing over administrative control of two-thirds of the territory to Morocco, while Mauritania received a third - a move not recognised by international law.

The Polisario Front, an independence movement in Western Sahara, saw Spain's decision as an affront to their self-determination and clashed with both Morocco and Mauritania over control.

In 1975, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) was established and claimed control over the entire region.

Eventually, Mauritania conceded its administrative control to the Sahrawi people, but clashes with Morocco continued until 1991, when a ceasefire was signed.

The ceasefire allowed Moroccan forces to remain on the western side of a 1,700-kilometre sand wall built by Rabat, where they administer control over most of the territory, including its significant mineral resources and offshore oil reserves.

In addition to a ceasefire, a UN peacekeeping force (MINURUSO) was established.

The ceasefire also set up the promise of a UN-supervised referendum, but this vote has been stifled by Morocco for three decades.

Who are the Sahrawi people?

The Sahrawi people are the indigenous people living in the western part of the Sahara desert.

The name Sahrawi comes from the Arabic word sahara, which means desert. They largely speak Hassaniya, a dialect of Arabic.

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They live in Western Sahara, Morocco, and parts of Mauritania and since 1975, many have been forced to move to refugee camps in southwest Algeria. Some also live in Spain.

The Polisario Front estimates the indigenous population of Western Sahara at between 350,000 and 500,000.

While the Polisario Front does not represent all Sahrawi people, many have taken to supporting the movement as the promise and hope of a referendum fades away.

The Moroccan government, meanwhile, refers to the Polisario Front as terrorists and says that they have "enslaved" the Sahrawi people.

Recently, Sahrawis praised the move by the Polisario Front to confront the Moroccan army, after it broke the 29-year ceasefire agreement in November.

"Sahrawis have had enough of waiting in the desert for a UN-promised mirage that gets further away with time," Kamal Fadel, one of Polisario’s young diplomats, previously told MEE.

Claims over sovereignty

Since the territory was ceded by Spain, Morocco has claimed Western Sahara as an integral part of its kingdom. Yet virtually no other country, except now the United States, recognises Moroccan sovereignty over it.

SADR is currently recognised by 80 countries around the world and is a full member of the African Union.

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The claims over sovereignty have also brought in regional and international players, who have either taken a side or played a neutral role in trying to reach an agreement.

The United Nations views the entire area as a "non-self-governing territory".

France and the US were heavily involved in supporting Morocco during its war against the Polisario in the mid-1970s and 1980s. 

Meanwhile, Algeria, which has been an adversary of Morocco since both countries won independence in the 1960s, has supported the Polisario Front against the "tyranny of the Moroccan regime" and also hosts a vast number of Sahrawi refugees.

Still, despite most of Africa, including Algeria, supporting the Sahrawi claim to Western Sahara, little has been done to establish this.

The US cemented its stance on Thursday by announcing that it recognises Morocco's claims to the territory, after Rabat announced it agreed to normalise ties with Israel.

Both Bahrain, which signed a normalisation deal with Israel in September, and the US are planning to open consulates to Morocco in Western Sahara, moves that could make it even more difficult for the Sahrawi people to maintain their claims to the territory.